I've gone back and re-read some of my favorite Harlequins recently. My plan is to study them to figure out what makes them work, then use those principles and apply them to my own stories.
Here's a few things I've learned:
1. Keep the hero and heroine apart for as long as possible. Put obstacles between them, so that once they get past one, there's another one waiting for them. The longer they're apart then the better conflict/story you'll have.
2. Make your characters likable. Make your readers care for them so that when bad things happen, they will go with you through the journey.
3. Quirky secondary characters add flavor to your story but sprinkle them in carefully. Too much of them is like too much salt in a dish: unpalatable.
4. The importance of family and community (especially in the Heartwarming line) can't be underestimated. They can add to a love story as well as serve as obstacles.
5. Good romances are escapes, but they must still be grounded in reality. It's fun to get away from the humdrums and annoyances of every day with a good story. But the best romances are those that have a sense of reality in them. Our characters deal with real problems that our readers can identify with.
6. The power of a happy ending can't be denied. Satisfaction can be found in a happily ever after.
What have you learned from reading romance novels?